header image by Amber

Noise wall of pastel pink, with black accents and rice. A dress she saw online and what to have for lunch, set to the tune of the invincibility music from Kirby Super Star Ultra for the Nintendo DS. Kickass game. God, to be back at home instead of doing this shit. No complaints now, there are worse ways to pay the rent, and your slacker job can’t cover everything. Do more dishes. And & & & &, for minutes on end as she waits for the wind to die down. A show with messy hair is no show at all, can’t show those pearly whites if they’re chewing on curls. But, baby, don’t listen to the dull cracks at the back of your mind. Pow-pow, pistol shot worries that echo through grey matter jelly. Ringing out, clear as summer blue—but luckily, she’s safe in her little box of pink noise.

“Looks like the wind is dying down finally.”

“Hm? Yeah, thanks for waiting with me, Dave,” she replies. “I guess I’ll go set up. See you later.”

“No worries. I’ll be out tonight,” Dave says, blankly. “You remember where to find the key?” 

“Yah, see you.”

“Good luck. Hope it goes well, Mary.” Soft impression of a smile… and gone.

They had spent most of their time steeped in a silence that was comfortable enough. David had never taken much interest in her performances, but he supported the cash they helped bring in. She thought of the sushi he ate as they sat there, quiet, cold fish and rice. They weren’t quite friends. Mary had eaten nothing, just some gum, lost in stargaze reveries of imagined pasts and potential futures as she mulched to grey lump, waiting for the time to perform. She preferred to work on an empty stomach. It was necessary. Try doing this shit on a full stomach and see what happens. Try doing this at all.

She watches Dave walk off, become smoke dissipated among the crowds coming and going from the various platforms and train lines snaking across the state like veins. She turns away, dragging her wheeled suitcase to her chosen busking spot at the corner of Bourke and Flinders, just before the three statues of the old wrinkly men with stupid faces. Ugly cunts.

Setting down the drop sheets, she begins unpacking her luggage. Three items: a portable Bluetooth speaker, an easel on which she places a set of sketches she’d done (they were fine, but she knows there’ll be no takers), and, finally, her hacksaw. Countless stainless-steel teeth glinting dully under grey summer sky, fluorescent lights reflecting off dishwater. She runs her fingers along the blade of the saw, and each tooth nibbles at her softly, playfully. She named it Steven, a name pulled out of the hourglass, dripping grains of sand about which she spoke to no one. It was a name dead and desiccated—mummified remains of…

But the compulsion to dig it up was there, and Mary was the kind of girl to give into whims; so it was that Steven was christened. Name like drops of sweet acid.

The music playing from the speaker is shitty and weird, though she likes it well enough. Schizoid tones that rise and fall, interrupted by the crackling of the pill speaker she bought online. Yume Nikki type beat. Her online friend had slapped the song together in Frooty Loops and given her permission to use it, and while she wasn’t quite sure those days of watching tutorials had really paid off, it caught attention; all she needed was some hungry eyes. Draw them in, then dance and spin, and cut bloody. 

As she turns around, holding the paper weights intended for securing the plastic sheeting, she notices a small audience has already formed. Six people staring at her, their eyes occasionally lolling to the art of the anime boys and girls in cute poses, which, under the shifting light of the grey bruised sky, she now sees is cruder in form than she had realized. The music increases in tempo. And she begins to think of how strange she must look, lanky legs jutting out of black-and-white dress, with rouge-painted lips, thin like vines; holding a hacksaw too clean for real work that glints in the overcast day. Amongst the strangers’ gazes she catches the haze fire of her own reflection in the glass of the Westpac windows. Rouge part to white. Teeth delirium of the sliding mask. Jawline escaping into vile angles that retard view. Noisewall worries and disgust—threats of rupture. She has a few customers now, so she’ll begin and draw in even more. First bowing low, smiling, wider, she begins a dance, hacksaw in hand (it had to be Steven, her only real companion). Swinging his blade around and spinning in circles. Noisewall to dreams and drowning mind spiraling like a shit-filled toilet draining down to porcelain base and memories.

She continues to spin and swing, but Mary no longer sees or hears the city streets, dreaming instead of the area out back of her apartment. Set time scale to four months ago, and she’s a pint of vodka into it. She thinks so, at least; no idea how much a fucking pint actually is. Point is, she’s wasted, properly seasoned sorrow, splutter of curses and bile in winter evening rain. It’s heavy enough that she’s soaked right through, but it’s not windy, for some reason. Weird weather, weird mood. There’s a word on her lips and she wants to die. “Poggers.” She coughs up bile and phlegm and lets the word out again, and it seems to slice slowly through the rain. Big cut through her brain. Slugs and mush and guts and mud. The digital artifact of a culture of detritus for ugly little men to say while drooling over the next greasy irrelevancy. But so useful a tool in crafting the mask she wears on the server. Big eyes, beautiful and soft—tender therapist and cultivator of their interests; caretaker of so many anime girls and reviewer of shitty shows. The word sums up her little digital world, trapping her within those horizons of meaning—desiccated. “Poggers.” It’s so “poggers” how seven keystrokes and she’s the delight of the server. Cozy little suffocating mask, the pretty little toothy smile, comforting others while she bites her gums bloody. [if = girl then delight = true]. Functions for online. And a function was all she could fulfil. No one to really talk to, just anime to like and fucking problems to listen to. Pay for a fucking therapist dude, please. And no job, and a roommate who was mostly gone. And and and. Sound of rain deafening her ears to the voices of logic and consolation. Stupid word, stupid source of misery, but whatever. She was alone: no more family (not anymore), no real friends (none she could meet, none she trusted), and no one in the apartments to catch what was about to come. It was Friday night, after all, so of course most of them would be out. With friends. 

Swimming in vodka and promises of release and frustration and fear and the piss dribbling down her leg (at least she thought it was piss, she was sloshed after all), she turns to face the two trees, the sole natural occupants the complex’s communal area. The grass is plastic. Fake as shit. Fake as Mary. Fake. Fake. Fake.

She laughs and it sounds like a burp. This would be a really retarded way to die if it worked. She’s tied chicken wire, tight, dull and metal, around the trees. Running track to a swift decapitation. Let’s die swiftly, efficiently and with pleasure sir. She salutes the air and rain and the piss in her panties and trudges forward, breaking first into a trot and then the best sprint she can manage on her semi-solid legs. And vodka and piss and pickling skull. Thumbscrew darkness closing in on each side of her vision; gaining and biting. And near the wire, mud sucking at bare feet, until a sudden shift in gravity and the clamping of the thumbscrews, obliterating consciousness. Black.

Waking to semi-darkness and silence, she realizes the rain has stopped. Her head and body hurt like hell, and her nose is filled with the stench of spew, and smoke and muck and vodka. The decapitation hadn’t occurred as planned. Best be grateful, I suppose. Chicken wire DIPSHIT. 

She gropes around in the half-light, the building starting to light up with drunk couples returning home. She had better hurry if she doesn’t want to get caught covered in mud and piss looking like a complete psycho. Despite her head vibrating with alcohol, she finds the ground and her center of gravity. Under shaky arms she pushes herself up, feeling the shift of her weight. But only feeling it. She continues to lie there on the ground as she feels her body move. Stench of mud and smoke. Maybe the piss has washed away? But… She fumbles, confused, for a few moments longer, heart racing, thinking she’s snapped some vital vertebra and these are simply the confused screams of a brain disconnected from a forever broken body. Then, it emerged. Her. Skinny jeans, tank top, bare feet and neck stump streaming smoke like the cigars her father was fond of smoking five beers in on Friday nights. The panic subsides instantly; her guts, still attached unlike her head, tell her nothing is wrong with the situation. Ocean of calm. Just a game in third person, only the camera is glitched out and tilted on its side. She watches her body as it leans forward—this is all strangely natural—and reaches out to pick up her head. Holding herself to her chest, she feels a sense of relief and safety, out of the muck and into… some new period, she thinks. 

She later found that her head would just snap back into place, guided down by the smoke trailing out of her neck stump. She attempted research into her condition, gliding over the term Dullahan, but gave up near instantly. She didn’t really care. It was some Irish bullshit, not that she really took in what she read. Days passed into weeks passed into Discord messages, passed into miserable days washing dishes at her new job and into silent evenings in the presence of her roommate, lovely empty ‘friend.’ Misery melding into indifference melding into time, into routine. Spinning flat line of life detritus—ever on. Until their landlord raised the rent and it turned out she needed extra cash to make ends meet. She’d done a bit of theatre and dance, so she figured she could make a little on the side busking and performing. But she looked weird, and non-pretty, and so, even dressed in crop tops and tights, she got no bites. 

Returning home from the city after her second weekend busking with only twenty dollars profit (minus the train fare) and a pain in her neck, she stares out the window. Someone, drunk and maybe homeless, was smoking something from a little pipe. Tobacco mixed with… something rancid, sending dirty little tendrils up towards the ceiling, breaking, dissipating, stinking up the whole fucking car. She was in the safe space of the noise wall, thinking static, nothing in particular today, just trying to ignore the stench of the bum a few aisles down when, ricochet cat call of violence sluices through the distraction. Idea of the empty signifier, Dullahan, meaning of which is thus: “party trick which will make me money.”

The rest was history, a blur of time. Picking up the hacksaw from Bunnings, practicing dance routines, asking friends for music, and discovering that it all felt kind of good in a way. Maybe that’s why the saw was called Steven. His hungry little teeth reminding her of sad eyes with void pupils searching for something. She wonders what he’d think if he could see her now. Maybe he’d just be jealous? 

Music stops and she’s breathing hard, on her knees, hacksaw raised and ready. She looks into the eyes of the crowd; some are hungry-looking, some bewildered, others with unreadable and opaque mirrors only reflecting back at her. One of them she has seen before. He has been watching from a slight distance, leaning against a storefront window, and she can’t be sure because he has his hands in his pockets, but his jeans seemed a little thicker around the crotch than they should be. She smiles, an inverted sneer. Facing the crowd, Mary runs Steve lightly along the skin of her neck, each prick of his teeth a little kiss. Let’s get it over with—reflection of self-love and self-respect on the surface of the mind, her pale reassurance to self. It’s for bread, or maybe love, or maybe it’s just to be seen. Keep in mind, reflections are often inverted. Teeth grind into skin, drawing blood immediately, nerves and neurons screaming white hot and writhing. Red lips parting to white, assure the crowd it’s fine, she suppresses initial grunt—the start is always hardest, but she saws hard and fast with long strokes, eager for the end of the performance, eager to get to the parts she enjoys. The parts sick and smoky.

Saw, saw, and rouge and scarlet. Blood’s a puddle now, but there’s a barrier of towels surrounding the drop sheets to make sure it doesn’t bleed off the plastic. Two questions remain unanswered from that night in the rain: what happened to the blood from that first decapitation, and why didn’t she die from the loss of it? She guessed it had been washed away in the rain, but the latter question remained a mystery. Saw, saw, saw, saw. Burning white and shining teeth give way to neural discharge of something new. Pain rupturing like the vessels she’s burst, reforming into something like pleasure—life gain, boosted by the eyes dissecting her performance, dissecting her face, dissecting her decapitation. She’s through her spine, past the trachea, just a few bits of skin and muscle to go, still riding that endorphin high. Once her head rolls, falls with the final slice of the saw, she’ll be ready to catch it. And free! And fall. And catch. She stands, head in hands, and raises it for all to see, still smiling—toothy wide—whatever they want her to be, baby! She blows a raspberry, and a young girl in the audience, previously wide-eyed, giggles. For a moment, her smile is actually genuine. A few more steps and a pirouette, and the show is complete. She bows and gestures to her open luggage, prompting the crowd to give what they could. She never gets anything less than a two dollar coin these days, but it was mostly notes. She supposes her performance was that good. 

Almost everyone steps forward to offer something. It’s a kindly crowd, but she knows she’d need to move spots soon before people get used to her. As people walk by, dropping coins or notes in, she holds her pose, curtseying with one arm towards the case and another tucking her head under her arm. She looks silly, in her opinion, but the people seem to like it. She hears murmurs about the quality of her special effects, and one old woman even says her dancing was as good as the effects. Bullshit, but flattering. She might miss a part of this once she gets a better job.

As the last of the crowd dissipates, off on business or shopping, Mary rises, only to catch a green hundred dollar note floating lazily in her suitcase. She looks up, startled to find the man from earlier. She doesn’t like him being so close when her head isn’t even on. It makes her feel vulnerable. His eyes look hungry for that.

“I’ve seen your other shows,” he says with an overly soft affectation. “They’re always so beautiful. You’ve a real talent for dance, you know!”

Mary stares at him, and he steps forward. He isn’t inappropriately close, just barely within her personal space.

“I’d love to know how you achieve those effects, the blood and the smoke. Maybe over coffee? C’mon, don’t look so taken aback. You’ve got beautiful teeth, darling. You should smile.”

And she does. She smiles at him, this man offering her time and attention. Another performance in waiting, maybe more money, if the hundred dollar bill is suggestive of anything close to the truth. Her smile widens and she flashes those whites, raising her head up with both hands and placing it on her neck. As it snaps into place, some of the blood resting in the folds of her throat rises up into her mouth. She pushes it forward with her tongue, coating her teeth in red. She speaks one word to him.


— Amber fell down a staircase once when she was 14 and all kinds of words and pictures have been leaking out of her brain ever since. You can find her art and writing on her blog or on her Twitter